Over the next couple of weeks, we’re spotlighting special needs inclusion in student ministry environments. Today’s post is the first of three posts where Amy Fenton Lee (Director of Special Needs Initiatives for Orange and author of:  Leading Special Needs Ministry) interviews Katie Garvert, an expert in the area of inclusion with special needs students.

Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves around 90 individuals affected by special needs.  Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish special needs inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage of life for this multi-site church.    You can follow Katie on Twitter.

Amy Fenton Lee: I’m hearing from a number of church leaders who are struggling to include older kids and teens with special needs. Why is teen inclusion difficult?
Katie Garvert: Two reasons come to mind.

  1. The very nature of student ministry is social and relationship-driven. 
    The typical student is really into their friends. The tool for life-change is shared experiences and conversation with other students. So, a good student pastor is constantly thinking about how to create an environment inviting interaction. But for the student with poor social skills or struggling to communicate, conversation and interaction with others is not appealing. For some students with special needs, they literally can’t think of anything they’d enjoy less than having to be social. And who blames them? No one enjoys doing things they aren’t naturally good at.Students with special needs can be easily misunderstood. One individual might be unfiltered, blurting out the first thought that pops into their head. Another student with disability struggles to form and express complete sentences. Both scenarios create tension for the student with special needs as well as their peers, who may be attempting to interact. Typically developing students sometimes react harshly in these awkward moments. In general, teenagers don’t exactly have the market cornered on emotional maturity. They’re still developing. So, odds are a student with severe ADHD or high functioning autism has already had a number of uncomfortable peer encounters by the time they reach your student ministry. You can see why the student ministry tool of social interaction may be the one thing a special needs student associates with failure.
  2. Parents and students with special needs often disagree on their goals for church participation.
    For example, before someone who has been through our special needs children’s ministry is promoted to student ministry, we meet with each family. We bring the parents and student together along with someone from our ministry team. First, we ask parents to share their goals for their teenager’s participation in the student ministry. We generally hear “be active in a small group;” “make quality friends;” and “participate in a mission’s trip.” After parents have shared their desires, we then ask the student to talk about the student ministry experience they envision for themselves. And it is not uncommon for us to hear this response:

“Nothing. I don’t want to be at church at all.”

We dive a little deeper and the story that emerges is fairly predictable. For this student, moving up to student ministry feels like a setup for failure. His or her memory bank isn’t full of successful interactions in social situations. Most likely…

  • She isn’t good at small talk.
  • He has difficulty talking about the interests of others.
  • She’s already felt rejection from some of the same girls at school.
  • He thinks the games are silly.

And nothing sounds worse than traveling on a mission trip—an experience full of unfamiliar environments and changes to their routine.

Mom and dad have their own goals for their son or daughter. And either consciously or subconsciously, the parents are pushing against the grain with their child. This push is causing even more resistance from the student. And as a ministry team, we feel it. (To the student’s credit, they are probably more in tune with their differences and the realities that accompany them.) In situations like this, a church can easily feel like they are in a no-win situation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. At the church I work at, Woodmen Valley Chapel, we’ve found some great solutions for scenarios like this.

Next week, we’ll talk through parent conversations that are often needed to set the student up for success. And in the final post, I’ll share five strategies we use to help students with special needs find their place in our student ministry.

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